Social entrepreneurship is one of the most liberating innovations of the 21st century.
It frees people who want to do good from the purse strings of government and the priorities of wealthy philanthropists. It combines business and social activism. It capitalizes on the creativity of the millennial generation. And it addresses the growing gap between the rich elite and the rest of society.
Roger Martin, former dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, was one of the first to spot the trend. Twenty years ago, when most corporate executives regarded corporate responsibility as an afterthought or a marketing strategy, he predicted the private sector would one day pick up the human burden shed by cash-strapped governments and too onerous for donor-dependent charities.
He didn’t know when it would happen or what it would look like. But he told his students, his colleagues and his peers that a change in business values was coming.
He set up the Institute for Corporate Citizenship at the Rotman School and developed a “value matrix” to guide companies that wanted to get ahead of the curve.
Martin didn’t anticipate that social entrepreneurship would be a bottom-up — not top-down — movement. Nor did he foresee that idealistic young risk-takers — not well-trained MBA graduates — would be at its forefront. But as startups committed to investing their profits in the community started popping up across the urban landscape, he welcomed the development, praised the founders and urged corporate CEOs to rethink their business model.
Two years ago, Martin stepped down as dean of the business school. But he didn’t stop thinking, speaking or writing about social entrepreneurship. As director of the Martin Prosperity Institute and the Michael Lee-Chin Family Institute for Corporate Citizenship, he remains one of the leading thinkers in the field.
His latest book, just published by the Harvard Business Review Press, is entitled Getting Beyond Better. It was written in partnership with Sally Osberg, president and CEO of the California-based Skoll Foundation, which invests in social enterprises on five continents.
The 200-page volume is a departure from Martin’s previous books (Playing to Win, The Opposable Mind, The Design of Business). It is less about corporate strategy than social transformation. It tackles issues that lie outside the normal ambit of commerce: inequality of income and opportunity, climate change, hunger and disease.
“Within every social entrepreneur is a belief that even the most intractable problem offers an opportunity for change,” Martin and Osberg write. “Instead of cursing the darkness, social entrepreneurs shine a light on what might be different. They confront the societal structures that leave too many behind, roll up their sleeves and set about the hard, exhilarating and important work of transforming what is into what can and should be.”
Getting Beyond Better is not a how-to guide for young visionaries seeking to launch and sustain socially responsible businesses. Most of them learn by doing, help each other and rely on their energy, ingenuity and determination to prove a double bottom line — doing well and doing good — can work.
The book is targeted at policy-makers, academics, business leaders, consultants and directors of charitable foundations seeking to understand how these new hybrids work and explore the possibilities they open up.
Unlike most leading economic thinkers, the authors believe social entrepreneurship has the power to supplant the status quo with a new equilibrium that serves people better. They make the case that social enterprises have carved a permanent — and positive — niche in the capitalist hierarchy.
Unfortunately for Canadian readers, the examples in the book are American success stories set in severely disadvantaged parts of the world. This downplays the impact of social entrepreneurship at home and leaves the impression that Canada isn't doing anything noteworthy. In fact, there are 25,000 social enterprises in this country. They are creating jobs that pay decent wages, training skilled workers, revitalizing neighbourhoods and challenging the proposition that greed is an essential driver of growth.
But the intent of the book is not to highlight specific models. It is to herald a new approach to problem-solving, explain how it works, outline its potential and show that it is already producing gains. It accomplishes all four objectives and may achieve its unstated goal: to confer legitimacy on this fresh attempt to align market principles with human welfare.